I have always felt enormous compassion for the teenagers in foster care who we meet through Pajama Program. The boys and girls between the ages of 12-17 are extremely special to me because they feel cast aside by so many people in their lives, like they don't matter anymore. If you and I spent a couple of hours together I would tell you how we have to beg, borrow and beg some more for "big size pajamas and popular teen books" for the kids who feel invisible when the toddlers and pre-schoolers arrive. I would tell you how their faces look when it's their first day in the group home, how they hardly communicate verbally, but their body language says it all. They just want to curl up in a ball and disappear forever. I would tell you how often I hide behind furniture or doors to conceal my tears in their presence because their pain is so real, I could swear it was me who was crumbling inside, not them. I would tell you about the 15-year-old girl in one of our poetry groups who one day sheepishly asked me if I could show her how to put on make-up because she was being transferred to another group home with older girls and she wanted to fit in. I spent two hours teaching her how to use blush and eyeshadow. I was so upset for the rest of the day, furious that a mother could abandon her daughter who then had to ask a stranger how to apply make-up. Her mother is the one who was supposed to show her how to put on make-up, I kept telling myself. But her mother left.
I recently got to know a woman named Ivy when she completed a PJ drive for Pajama Program through Scholastic. Ivy understood the children we were helping, especially the teenage girls. Never in a million years did I think she had such a compelling and courageous personal story behind her passion for her pajama and book drive and the children who would receive those gifts.
Ivy ended up in a detention center with criminal children when she was 16, not because she was a bad girl, but because they didn't know what else to do with her. Ivy told me she ran away from home after suffering physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her parents. She spent 30 days locked down in a detention center before being placed in her first foster home.
Ivy read my earlier post about our poetry program and she understood why poetry touches these girls. She said reading was her escape. She read everything she could get her hands on and she wrote too. She still actually has stacks of poems and short stories she wrote that got her through those dark days. But reading her poems now bring back painful memories. She came across a high school writing assignment, graded by her teacher, about a beating she got from her father because she didn't drain the grease off the ground beef right . The story was so detailed down to the exact dialog where she actually apologized to her father and vowed she would try harder to be a better girl because she loved him. She promised him she would never tell what he did to her.
The story made Ivy angry at so many people; angry at the social worker who, when Ivy was 10, let her father scare her off. She was angry at his friends in high places who conveniently lost or misplaced the reports from neighbors and other parents who tried to help her; and angry too, with the teacher she loved who encouraged her to write but never once asked if the story was true -- even though she referred to herself by name in the story. Why didn't he help her?
The anger in me is boiling now as I write this, just as it did when Ivy first told me that story. How it is possible for a parent to continually abuse his child like that is beyond my comprehension. I struggle with this "how" all the time. I try to understand, to find compassion for what his upbringing might have been like, but I cannot get past my anger and my feelings of protection toward these children.In the end, the poetry is a pretty place to hide, Ivy told me.
"For some older children the world does get better. For others the world is an ugly place they don't survive. I tried to do everything I could to be the girl they would love, without success. The beatings continued. There wasn't going to be a rescue, no white knight, no prince charming. I was going to have to save myself so I ran away."
Even now as an adult with a loving husband and beautiful children of her own Ivy says it hurts when she stops to think about it all. Her heart breaks all over again knowing there are still children out there going through what she went through and worse. She wants to grab them all up in her arms and take them home to be the rescuer she never got.
Ivy didn't get to take very much with her when she was placed in foster care. She did end up with two books, one about magic and an exiled boy, and the other a Reader's Digest copy of Jane Eyre that her great grandmother gave her. Ivy says those books are what drew her to Pajama Program ."The idea of snuggly, warm jammies for a child without, coupled with the hope that the books will give them the same escape I found when I read, makes me believe I can help you understand how these kids feel."
Ivy told me she thinks people like you and I see older children in the foster system as too broken to save.
"Older children are not broken beyond repair, they just take a lot more effort and more time."